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Making magic with mushrooms

James Halliwell
5 min read
AUTHOR: James Halliwell

The Long Room at the Oval traditionally serves up a hearty lunch of chicken and vegetables to hungry cricketers, but in March it will be serving up something completely different to guests at Food Matters Live’s first Tastes of Better event. 

In cricketing terms, what will emerge from the kitchen is a bit of a googly. Mycelia is not commonly spotted on menus, even at Heston Blumenthal’s latest restaurant. Yet as everyone knows, mycelia are the roots of a mushroom. And as everyone also knows, mushrooms are a miracle food. 

The biggest living organism in the world also happens to be a mushroom. Or more accurately, a massive mycelial mass, which has been quietly growing in Oregon for around 2,000 years. Size-wise, it’s almost five km high and wide. It’s huge, so it neatly represents the potential mushrooms have to offer the world of food.

MycoTechnology co-founder Alan Hahn found this potential out the hard way after a terrible afternoon at the doctors in 2011. The doctor explained he was now a type 2 diabetic, and while that grim news was sinking in, the doctor delivered a coup de grâce that had a big impact. “Hey, Alan,” grinned the doctor while Hahn was leaving the room. “Here’s how you live your life. If it tastes good, don’t eat it. If it tastes bad, eat it!

The diagnosis started Hahn, a successful investor, on a mission to discover tasty food that wouldn’t worsen his diabetes. It was around this time that co-founder Pete Lubar
introduced Alan to a couple of Denver-based scientists who were teasing out the potential of mushroom mycelia to ferment pea protein without leaving a troubling aftertaste. And ten years later, with $200m in investment raised, MycoTechnology sits at the vanguard of plant-based technology. 

Taste and texture

In November it announced a deal to work with IFF (which has a market cap of $28bn) in Europe, building on a previous agreement to work together in the US. And in December 2022 its ClearIQ bitter blocker scooped a ‘highly commended’ in the ‘Sensory Innovation’ category at the FIE, the world’s biggest ingredients fair (its other standout product is FermentIQ plant protein, which solves problems like taste, texture, solubility and emulsification). Both will feature when MycoTechnology serves up a selection of small plates of food for guests at Tastes of Better

In short, things are progressing nicely, evidenced by Myco’s market manoeuvres, its current projects, and its emerging product portfolio. “I’m proud of our texturised protein, our meat analogues,” says Myco marketing director Jonas Feliciano. “The market is largely saturated, but our culinary chops shine there. And we are seeing really strong interest for FermentIQ in plant-based protein shakes.

He suggests the overall market could be improved from a taste point of view and the MycoTechnology protein ingredients can contribute to a “cleaner tasting product, and a higher protein one as well, because the taste off-notes are reduced through our process, and we can include higher levels of protein. Also, have you heard of the McRib?”

Who hasn’t heard of the McRib? The legendary but elusive McDonald’s menu item is currently on a ‘Farewell Tour’ in the US. Healthy scepticism surrounds that ‘farewell’ claim, but regardless of whether it does disappear forever, Feliciano says Myco is working with PLNT burger (a subsidiary of Eat the Change, a sustainable food group founded by Seth Goldman, chairman of Beyond Meat and founder of Honest Tea) to help them develop a plant-based McRib that’s nutritious, sustainable, plant-based and animal free. 

It tastes just as good, if not better than the original. Plus, it’s priced affordably and it’s not going to destroy the planet.”

It’s a single example of a single product, but viewed from a wider context it demonstrates part of the holistic mission Myco is on. It wants its food to taste as good as possible, of course, and no doubt it has made significant advances in terms of functionality, nutrition, flavour, aroma and digestibility. But it also wants to work with the most passionate and innovative people to make plant-based food that is a force for good.

Interior of an office

MycoTechnology is based in Denver, Colorado

MycoTechnology is based in Denver, Colorado

Feliciano says PLNT burger is just “one example of the type of people we want to work with, people who have passion, that are really doing it for the consumer and to drive change. “There are many concerns about the future of food in terms of security, sustainability and affordability. We hope to work with other innovators to make plant-based food that can truly compete with animal products and help to restore balance to the food industry.”

MycoTechnology does have proven and innovative taste solutions, which has plenty of industry plaudits, but currently “there is still a lot of room for growth” he says. “If we could have all the players fermenting their pea proteins using mushroom mycelia then everything would taste better.”

Natural alchemy

Before then, where does he think the plant-based market is currently at in terms of reaching that goal? “The technology is still catching up with demand, it needs time,” he says. “It’s getting there. We try and focus on the culinary, the high-end, and on making unique plant-based food. And to stop replicating and start innovating, because we’re not going to make something that tastes exactly like beef, so why make consumers compare it?”

Replicating, he believes, will “always fail you, that’s the problem we’re going to have with plant-based until more dishes and products are purposefully plant-based, and can be indulgent and delicious. When we create different experiences, that’s when we can reinvigorate the category.”

Few would argue with that. As for the future for MycoTechnology, it plans to continue to forage for the future on its alchemic journey of blending natural food technology with the culinary world. And you can expect it to keep on growing for a while to come – just like the mycelia it works with. 

Meet MycoTechnology at the Food Matters Live: Tastes of Better series, an opportunity for ingredient innovators to showcase first-hand their latest ingredient, flavour and colour innovations to our UK audience of brands, manufacturers, retailers, foodservice and QSRs.